Actual Play: 3:16 Carnage Amongst The Stars

This past weekend at a local GoPlay! event, I got the chance to play in a one-shot session of a nifty little game called 3:16 Carnage Amongst the Stars, which was written by Gregor Hutton. It was a fun session, and I figured I would get back into the spirit of game session logging by writing some “actual play” thoughts on my experiences with this system. Keep in mind that I don’t own a copy of the rules, and I’m writing this review from my memory and my game notes alone, so I might get some terms and rules mixed up. As such, this isn’t a “review” as much as an introspective play report.

Also, while playing this game I noticed a lot of similarities, play-wise, that it shared with Cannibal Contagion. Apologies in advanced if I make frequent comparisons, but that’s where my mind is, and their similarities really helped me put the game into a few perspectives, which I appreciated.

Setup:

All I originally had heard about the system from various folks was that it was “Starship Troopers: The Movie: The Game” – meaning, space marines murdering space bug with full-on bloody space action. In space! I love space, it’s awesome, and so was 3:16. Nick Smith (co-author of Classroom Deathmatch, one of my favorite games ever), assembled this session, with three total additional players (Myself, Joel, and Evan). He laid the basic premise out pretty effectively, and since said premise was simple enough to understand, we easily jumped right into character creation.

In 3:16, character creation is delightfully quick, and this was explained to us as being so because your character will likely die (and quickly), and when that happens you’re supposed to be able to quickly jump right in with a new one. Cannibal Contagion has the exact same mentality, so it was easy for me to grasp, and I was eager to give it a shot.

After jotting down some quick color basics (name, nickname, reputation), we assigned points to the two core stats. That’s right, only two, and they’re totally appropriate: one for killing things (called FA), the other for doing everything else (called NFA). That seemed easy enough to understand, but later I noted some potential balance issues with these stats, which I will discuss much further below. My character was named James Jimson, aka “Double Jim,” and his FA and NFA were 3 and 7, respectively. I don’t remember his reputation, but it was something about being the only survivor of a terrible massacre.

Once we wrote our stats, Nick informed us that those stats are now used to determine our initial rank. The higher your NFA, the higher your rank, and my character had the highest, netting him a rank of Sergeant (the highest you can be at creation). This allowed me to give some more commands to the others, but gave me a few more (mostly-narrative) responsibilities. I’m not entirely sure if “narrative responsibility” is a worthwhile or even tangible mechanic, but it wasn’t a big deal in the end. I also got a cooler assortment of weapons to pick from, as well as an Evacuation pod.

We wrote down our weapons and health levels, and then jumped right in.

Actual Play:

I got the impression that my own recent experiences with more cutthroat-style games of betrayal and factions affected my interpretation of this game, and it seemed that thus was true of the other players as well. We all immediately got into a “shoot your allies” and “kill your superior officers” kind of mentality in one fashion or another. I would like someday to replay this game, and take a more dedicated, less cutthroat approach to the story. That being said, the approach we took was a whole lot of fun, so don’t think for one second that I’m complaining!

Our group consisted of three characters. Mine was a hard-but-resourceful Sgt, Evan’s was a soldier known for high ratios of friendly fire, and Joel’s was a do-what-it-takes “junior officer” who had no respect for inept senior officers. We went forth on a series of missions to destroy these gigantic dinosaur-monsters who carried massive building-sized laser guns. I won’t go into too many details on the scenario, but I would like to talk about some of the mechanics.

I liked the basic ideas behind the core dice mechanic. When you want to kill things, you roll a d10 and try for less-or-equal to your FA score. When you want to do anything that doesn’t involve killing, you roll likewise against you NFA score. For a Spaceship Bughunt kind of game, that’s really all you need! When you succeed in a kill, you subtract a single token from the somewhat ambiguous token pool that represent’s the enemy’s strength. While pretty vague in its implementation, it is extremely similar to Cannibal Contagion’s “Threat Score” mechanic, so it made total sense to me.

When you succeed in removing a token, however, you also roll a number of dice determined by what weapon you are using and how far you are from the enemy. This determines your “kills,” which in fact mechanically only determines how much experience you gained from that action. I don’t remember this being clearly explained to us at the beginning of the session, and don’t recall learning about what exactly “kills” did until the end of our test encounter. I can see the given explanation of Kills and their mechanical importance as needing some initial clarification, at least for the purpose of setting a good frame of mind.

The actual dice mechanic is a basic “Win versus Fail” roll. If you achieve success, you get to roll your Kills, scratch off an enemy token, and then go wild describing how you won and what you did. Thing is, as it was explained to us, there are no real bad consequences for your own failure other than having to wait an extra round or two for the enemy to die. Each character can remove at most one single token from any enemy encounter, so failure simply means that one less token can be removed during this round of the battle. While that means that the enemy could of course then be allowed to survive for another round and thus potentially do more damage, it seemed that all it really ended up happening was that we were either Killing, or Waiting. It might have been a bit more suspenseful if the enemy didn’t have to use any mechanics to hurt the characters, thus making its prolonged survival a much more threatening menace.

That being said, describing the kills was a blast. We had a good mix of veteran story gamers on board, so we all took to that aspect of the rules with glee and gusto. Sadly, I understand there were a good number of mechanics that we just weren’t able to employ, due to the one-shot nature of the gathering. We didn’t get to use vehicles much at all, and we only briefly and shallowly dipped into the numbers behind the specially-empowering Flashback mechanics (see below for some notes on that). I do particularly enjoy the per-mission advancement mechanics; I find that being able to mechanically invest in your character as soon as the first couple of encounters makes games a whole lot more fun, and makes for an ultimately more rewarding play experience.

Some Nitpicks:

Awesomeness is not often unmarred by some minor level of boo-ness, though. I’ve got a few tiny gripes about the game and the session we played. First, NFA needs clarification. The NFA (non-fighting ability) stat is too vaguely powerful, at least as far as we were able to interpret. As written in the rules, there is nothing at all preventing you from using the NFA stat to do everything, resulting in lots of kills and lots of discarded bad dude tokens. This was a point of heavy discussion during the game session, when we realized that several players were just using NFA to narrate how they “cleverly” took out groups of bad guys without directly shooting or stabbing them. In my opinion, there needs to be some specific clause in the text that states exactly if/how NFA can be used to affect kills and bad dude tokens. We looked and looked for something like this, but found none.

I was confused about the Strength Flashback mechanic. It was explained to us that you only get one, ever. Well, this being a one-shot game, I used mine in the very final conflict. I think that this mechanic should be clarified a bit to prevent that, unless no one else really cares. In the earlier incarnations of Cannibal Contagion, there was a mechanic called the “Agsomafa” finishing blow, which was a once-only-ever ability each character had, which allowed them to just win any one single Showdown. Problem was, in every playtest using this mechanic, the players waited until the very last encounter with the Big Bad and just chained them together, taking out the Big Bad with no sweat. That mechanic, needless to say, is no longer present in Cannibal Contagion. I think 3:16‘s flashbacks might benefit from a bit of tuning to make them more compatible with convention-style play. Cons seem to be the bread and butter of indie game promotion these days.

Also – and this might just be a situational nitpick and not something wrong with the game itself – there should also be some narration limits inherent to the guidelines. I noticed that some players would really go totally overboard not only when declaring their actions, but then again when their declared action succeeded. If you spend five minutes narrating what you are going to do, then spend five more minutes narrating how what you did succeeded, the game is hampered – unless, of course, everyone is doing this and they’re all on the same page. I got the impression that the mechanics were meant to move fast and bloody. Our session wasn’t as fast, but I’m also sure that a lot of that had to do with all of us being new to the game. Perhaps the rules could benefit from a quick guideline, such as “when stating your action, just give a quick statement on what you’re trying to accomplish; wait until you succeed to go all-out.”

Final Thoughts:

I had a really good time with this game. I always love playing one-shots of these games at mini-cons like the GoPlay! events, and this was certainly no exception. I think it would work best with a short-run campaign format, though, and should Nick every want to run such a game (HINT HINT), I want in.

In closing, usually when I review books, movies, and video games, I use a four-tiered rating system: Buy it, Rent it, Borrow it, and Avoid it. I know I said that I don’t consider this to be an all-out “review,” but I’ll apply this here just for fun. Buy this game! I may have given it some minor nitpicks above, but consider this: if those are my only nitpicks from a brand new game, that’s saying a lot about how awesome that game is. If you enjoy killing space bug monster things with big explosion kill-guns, this is your game, accept no substitute.

– NPC

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